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Released February 7, 2005

PUTTING A HUMAN TOUCH ON RESEARCH

HATTIESBURG – The elderly woman sitting in the chair next to Dr. Yuan Luo watches an "I Love Lucy" rerun and laughs. She's seen the episode before. She knows all the punch lines.

For the life of her though, she can't remember the name of her new friend, whom she met only minutes before.

Luo is not surprised. "Short term memory goes first. But you'd be surprised what their long-term memory can remember," Luo will later say.

When the name still won't come, Luo just holds the old woman's hand and smiles, the woman smiling back. Behind the kindest pair of eyes she's ever seen, Luo stares at the cruelest disease known to man.

For two decades, Luo has studied Alzheimer's disease in books and in the lab, where she has searched tirelessly for a cure to the brain-wasting disease that affects millions of Americans. Until now, however, the assistant professor of biology at The University of Southern Mississippi has never stepped outside of the classroom and into the trenches, where her research could mean so much to so many.

Now, she's hoping a series of meeting with patients, their family members and staff at Hattiesburg's Pine Meadow Alzheimer Special Care Center can give her added insight into her work.

"I've worked almost 20 years with Alzheimer's research and never met a patient, which is why I came here," Luo says. "I wanted to make a connection with the patients."

On her first trip to Pine Meadow, Luo and two of her students, Marishka Brown and Stephanie Stringer, toured the facility and mingle with patients and the friendly staff. Later, they met with a family whose lives have been touched not once, but twice, by Alzheimer's, a disease that preys on genealogies.

"This puts a face on our research," says Brown, a graduate student in biology at Southern Miss.

"We're always in the lab, trying to find causes and new cures for Alzheimer's, but we never see the people whose lives are affected by it. Here, we hear stories about mothers, fathers, family members who have suffered through this. It just humanizes it and strengthens our cause."

Pine Meadow Director Deborah King says, "We're all about research here. We love our patients, and we love to talk about the disease with others."

Enthusiastic and energetic, King is an animated host, giving Luo and her entourage the grand tour of the clean, spacious facility and introducing her to the people who call it home.

For so many condemned to such a sorrowful fate, happiness abounds inside these walls. Outside the salon, a group of ladies thumb through magazines as they wait to get their hair done, giddy like school-girls the night before prom. In the main recreation room, patients clap and sing to old standards, led by a gregarious staff member with well-honed pipes.

Balloons and streamers litter the floor, remnants of a party held earlier that day. In the television room, classic movies await - from "Gone with the Wind" to just about everything John Wayne ever made.

Far from the institutional stereotype, Pine Meadow feels more like a cruise ship than anything.

And if so, King is its captain. Knowledgeable about the science behind the disease, she is clearly passionate about her work. When Luo approached her about meeting patients with Alzheimer's, King knew right away only good could come from it.

"If we can educate the public, then we perhaps increase our funding for more research. I'm hoping for many more meetings with Dr. Luo," King says.

Named in 1906 after the German doctor Alois Alzheimer, the disease is the most common form of dementia among older people.

Affecting the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language, Alzheimer's usually begins after age 60, the risk going up with age.

As many as 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, with about five percent of men and women ages 65-74 suffering from the disease. At Pine Meadows, most are women. Out of 55 patients, only nine are men.

While researchers like Luo are unlocking more clues to the mystery every day, there is no cure - yet. A silver lining exists on the dark horizon, however. Scientists generally agree that activity can slow down, if not reverse, the onslaught of Alzheimer's. "The smarter you are, the longer you'll last. It's a case of use it or lose it." Luo says.

At Pine Meadow, they take that message to heart, turning fun and games into serious business.

Whatever it might be, crossword puzzles, Bible Blurt, reading, painting and physical activities -- and it differs almost every day of the week - everything is designed to sharpen faculties, to turn back the clock. When those things no longer work, the results are tragic. "They're like a baby," King says. "They go back to the start, where they need total care."

Naturally, Alzheimer's takes a toll on families. It is also rough on members of the Pine Meadow staff, who usually develop a deep affinity for those under their care. "We almost become part of their families because we spend as much time with them as their own relatives," King says.

To help patients feel more "at home," pictures showing them in their youth hang on the wall outside their rooms, complete with biographical information: name, children, former occupation, favorite memories, etc.

"They can always remember who they are in the picture, no matter how young. This helps them find their room, plus shows things about their life, their past. It shows they're not just an 'old person,' but someone who has had jobs, children, an active life," King says.

During her trip, Luo and her students met with Ann Rogers and her siblings, who were at Pine Meadow visiting their mother, a patient. Rogers and her family told Luo how the disease first made itself known and progressed.

There were little things at first, like forgetting to turn off the stove. Intuitively, Rogers mother felt something was wrong when she'd search for a familiar name, only to come up empty. "The only word she could ever use to describe how she felt was 'blank,'" Rogers says.

When her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Rogers and the rest of the family was devastated.

"I think it is the cruelest disease there is. At least with cancer, there is an end. Not that you want them to die, but (with Alzheimer's) you see them lose a little more every day.

"This is the woman you've always known as 'mother.' And one day, they can't even remember your name," Rogers says.

Rogers credits Pine Meadow with improving her mother's condition. And while she loves being able to visit her often, Rogers says she never feels completely comfortable there, given her genetic predisposition for the disease.

"Not too many days go by that I don't think about getting Alzheimer's," Rogers says.

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April 1, 2005 3:32 PM